Obituary for Klaus Pinkau

Former MPE Director, Professor Klaus Pinkau, passed away in October in a Munich hospital at the age of 90.

October 20, 2021

After studying mathematics at the University of Tübingen 1951-53, Klaus Pinkau moved to the University of Hamburg to study physics, where he worked on his diploma thesis in Professor Bagge’s group, graduating in 1956. Already in 1955, with the encouragement of Erich Bagge, he had gone to the University of Bristol and the group of Cecil Powell (Nobel Prize in Physics 1950) to learn the nuclear track emulsion technique, which, at the time, was of great importance for cosmic ray studies and the nascent gamma-ray astronomy.

Among experts, Klaus Pinkau became very well known for a method to determine the energy of a gamma-ray shower based on the number of electrons and positrons in the central region of the shower. He completed his doctorate in Bristol in 1958, and in 1960 returned to the group of Erich Bagge, who had become director of the newly founded Institute for Pure and Applied Nuclear Physics at Kiel University. There he started a research program in the fields of cosmic ray physics and gamma astronomy, using home-made balloons launched from northern Germany. Because the prevailing westerly winds meant that the balloons and their instruments disappeared behind the Iron Curtain and were lost, he later used the services of NCAR in Texas for the balloon launches.

Following a visiting professorship at Louisiana State University from 1964-65 he accepted an invitation from MPE’s founding director Reimar Lüst to become head of the Gamma-ray Astronomy Group in Garching. In 1966 he was appointed Scientific Member, in 1969 Institute Director, and in 1972 Managing Director, when Reimar Lüst became MPG President.

At MPE, Klaus Pinkau and his group continued with developing balloon astronomy and, with the advent of the first satellites, also ventured into space. Particularly successful was the institute's participation in ESA's gamma astronomy satellite COS-B (launched in 1975) as well as the contributions to NASA's Compton Gamma Ray Observatory (launched in 1991) which began under Pinkau's leadership – the Compton telescope of Volker Schönfelder's group and the EGRET experiment in which the group of Gottfried Kanbach and Hans Mayer-Hasselwander participated.

In 1981, Klaus Pinkau left MPE to become Director of the neighbouring Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics, where he made important contributions to fusion research. He explained his motivation for this dramatic change at the time by saying that it was more important for him to make research possible than to conduct research himself.

Until recently, this great scientist and organiser maintained personal contacts with many MPE members and joined our celebrations and Christmas parties. We will miss him and remember him with gratitude. Our sincere sympathy goes out to his wife Ursel, her three sons, and their families. 

Ralf Bender, Paola Caselli, Reinhard Genzel, Gerhard Haerendel, Kirpal Nandra, Joachim Trümper

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